Trump vs Clinton Debate Analysis


This article was written by Contributing Writer Erik van Mechelen with Yu-kai’s video commentary of the first 2016 presidential debate as source material. 

How did Trump win in 2016?

A lot of people are trying to figure out how Donald Trump got enough votes in the right places to win the 2016 American presidential election.

In this article, we’re not going to focus on pollsecho chambers, reactions, or even what each candidate said leading up to the election.

In the lowest voter turnout for a U.S. presidential election in 20 years, it’s clear from results that Democrats didn’t show up to vote like they did for Obama, that 3rd-party candidates mattered, and that Trump despite inflammatory rhetoric somehow found an edge.

These are all notable topics. But I’m going to sideline them for now.

Instead, we’re going to focus on HOW things were said.

While logic and argument are crucial for decision-making, charisma and emotion and persuasion are influences on that same decision-making process. We’re humans–our brains depend on logic and emotion.

I’ll use the first presidential debate for source material as we dig in.

As always, I’ll sprinkle in mentions of the Octalysis Core Drives to spice things up.

Rise through the Republicans

It was surprising to some that a New York Democrat like Donald Trump was even entering the race from the GOP side.

It was more surprising he beat out 16 other candidates.

In a field of 16 Republican candidates, Trump seemed to easily mount a lead and dismiss opposition.

When the establishment rallied against him, Trump used easy-to-remember emotional jabs like “Little Rubio” or “Low-energy Jeb”. His sense of humor and reframing kept his messages light and punchy. When the content of his messages was heavier (like the deportation of 11 million illegal immigrants, or the building of a wall between Mexico and the United States), some people liked what he had to say, while others thought he was joking (so didn’t take these promises seriously).

Clinton and Trump: Who had more charisma?

The argument I’m about to make is a difficult one.

I’m going to argue that charisma and playing to emotions increases one’s memorability and likeability. And because Trump had more of this, he increased his chances of winning the election.

The reason this is a tricky argument is because detractors could point to other variables that were more important in making a candidate choice.

Because we have to rely on exit polling for reasons for voting and on the election results themselves (and the assumptions portrayed by identity politics), we can’t really know how much charisma and emotion in rhetoric mattered to an individual voter. Even if a voter were able to say, for example, that Trump’s charisma affected her decision by 30%, we wouldn’t know what to say when we compared a different voter’s assessment that Trump’s charisma affected her decision by 50%.

The above reasoning is analogous to why it is difficult to reliably understand baselines in (let alone increases to), say, happiness, in a psychological clinical setting. One person who claims a 3/10 score for happiness might actually be happier than the next person who self-reports a 5/10 score.

Also, let’s assume they had equal support

If we approached the election as some voters did, as strictly trying to decide between two candidates (ONLY Hillary or Donald), then they would be trying to make a choice between just two options.

Even with only two options, the voter may be using one of many decision-making schemes. These vary from multiple-factor strategies to lexical graph approaches. In an extreme example where a voter is only concerned with immigration from Syria, the voter will be watching for and listening for arguments and policies relating to the topic.

How charisma matters

This is the part where charisma and emotional argumentation matters. It is possible that a voter in this scenario hears better arguments from Clinton, but feels better about the way Trump addresses immigration from Syria. In this extreme one-issue voting scenario, the voter would choose Trump.

At the debate

As we saw in Donald’s dismissal of Rubio and Jeb and Cruz, Trump continued his use of charisma and playing to emotion in the debates.

Yu-kai did a live commentary of the first debate.


Yu-kai made comments on how charismatic or strong a response felt or sounded. He also offered different approaches than were chosen in real-time by the candidates.

Even though the media consensus was that Clinton won the first debate, when using a charisma/emotion lens, it might be argued that even in Trump’s worst debate, he actually won on the scale of charisma/emotion.

For undecided voters that hadn’t already been swayed by ideology or policy or any other metric, the debate in a live setting sets the stage for charisma/emotion to change or influence one’s thinking.

(As an aside, it is also significant that the debates are televised. In the Nixon-Kennedy debate, many listeners–on radio–thought Nixon won the debate, while most watching on television felt Kennedy won.) There is a long history of debate moments having large impacts on voters.

Charisma is an interesting thing. Charisma gives a statement attention. When someone applies charisma, I give them my attention. Depending on the context, any nonverbals, from smiles to frowns, from shrugs to hugs, count as charisma.

It doesn’t matter that much, does it?

A common response to the above is: I don’t let charisma get to me. I’m only concerned about the content of the message.

Congratulations, you’re one of maybe 3 people on the planet Earth that aren’t affected by charisma and emotional persuasion.

Saying or thinking that way is akin to believing the following: Advertising doesn’t work on me, it just works on everyone else.

Some examples from the debate

Clinton’s granddaughter: Clinton’s opening remarks invoked a story of her granddaughter. This story played on Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness. This was a solid emotional hook to open the debate. Any granddaughter or grandmother/grandfather could immediately relate.

“That makes me smart.”: As Clinton talked about Trump’s alleged tax loopholes, Trump said legally avoiding paying taxes made him smart. He interjected, trying to reframe Clinton’s comment. To some, this statement was funny. The way Trump uttered the statement, as a short quip with a grin, had the desired effect. It softened the blow Clinton was at that moment delivering. For some, it possibly changed the message from Trump didn’t pay taxes to Trump is pretty smart. Those are two vastly different messages.

The worst trade deal: Trump went after Clinton about NAFTA, which he considered the “worst deal” he’s seen. He stayed on the offensive, while Clinton didn’t turn the statement around as well as she could have to go on the offensive herself.

“I prepared for this debate, and I prepared to be president”: Near the end of the debate, Clinton closed with a pretty strong one-liner. These short and strong statements probably would have brought her more attention in key moments. Notice the wit of the statement. Because it has an element of charm and humor, the punch is that much punchier.

Onward, accountability for actions

Look at how people speak in all settings, but especially in important ones. If you’re arguing or having a conversation in public with onlookers, it can be useful to apply a bit of charisma. This helps your message get through.

As designers of human experiences (company culture, games, apps, businesses), we also know results matter. Just as I watched how President Obama achieved or didn’t achieve campaign promises, I’ll be watching what actions Trump takes when he takes office.

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